Imagine a ventilation system that smites airborne SARS viruses before they can infect large numbers of passengers on a plane. Or picture an auto plant in which cars could be painted to perfection using 1/100th the energy required in today's factories -- and with virtually no pollution.
A single engineering breakthrough could lead to both these applications, and more. It's a compact device about the size of a small watercooler, that was created and patented by inventor Tovi Avnery, founder and chief technology officer of Advanced Electron Beams Inc. (AEB) in Wilmington, Mass. The device generates a beam of free-flowing electrons that have the strange, almost contradictory power to cleave some chemical bonds -- say, in a virus' genes -- and seal others to create whole new materials.
Electron-beam technology, in various forms, has been around for decades. The cathode-ray tube in a TV, for example, creates pictures by rapidly scanning streams of electrons in a vacuum across the phosphor-coated glass screen. And giant, expensive e-beam emitters, some as tall as two-story buildings, are used in about 1,000 locations around the world for printing, creating advanced plastics, and sterilizing medical equipment. But in the eyes of AEB CEO Kenneth Felis, smaller and cheaper e-beam emitters could spark an exponential increase in use. "This technology has a multibillion-dollar potential," he says.
Market projections may be premature. Still, it's easy to see the appeal of AEB's devices. Prices for the large conventional emitters start at $250,000 per unit and can exceed $1 million. In contrast, Felis says his e-beam machines should cost as little as $15,000 when they enter widespread use in two to three years -- and ultimately, the price could drop to $1,000. Even AEB's competitors are impressed. The technology "could really open people's eyes," concedes Harvey Clough, president of Energy Sciences Inc., the leading U.S. producer of old-style e-beam emitters.
Avnery's own background is as exotic as his invention. He grew up in an Israeli refugee camp after his parents fled Baghdad in 1951. Graduating from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in 1979, he moved to the U.S. and found work with Energy Sciences. "The customers all loved what e-beams can do," he recalls, "but they hated the equipment. My dream was a device [that] could be used everywhere."
After getting passed over for the top job in 1993, Avnery left the company. In 1996, he set up his own small lab near Boston, and just three years later received a patent with 40 claims on his scheme for radically miniaturizing the technology. While conventional emitters have large external pumps to maintain a vacuum within the chamber where electrons are separated, Avnery's design uses a superthin titanium foil, just 6 microns thick, to preserve the vacuum but permit electrons to escape. And while conventional systems require large external power supplies to help extract electrons, Avnery harnessed the electrical field within the chamber for extraction, reducing the external power supply to the size of a VCR.
With patents in hand, Avnery formed AEB and attracted a heavyweight board. It is chaired by former General Motors (GM) Corp. Vice-Chairman Robert J. Schultz, who has already persuaded one auto company, auto parts giant Delphi Corp., and several suppliers of auto coatings to work with AEB. The board's vice-chairman is retired Admiral Archie Clemins, former Commander of the Pacific Fleet, who has helped AEB explore military applications -- including the destruction of biological and chemical weapons -- for the Pentagon and the Homeland Security Dept.
The beams can be used in two basic ways: to trigger chemical reactions that are the basis for applications in paints and adhesives; or, conversely, to break carbon bonds, which is useful for sterilization. In the former category, some 30 companies are studying AEB's prototypes, including 3M (MMM) Baxter International (BAX), and Sun Chemical. Painting may be one of the first uses to pan out because the electrons "cure" the paint as quickly as it is applied. In the auto industry, where conventional paint lines "are extremely expensive and time-consuming, [AEB's technology] has tremendous promise," says David E. Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research. Electron-beam emitters could replace the energy-intensive ovens now used to bake paint dry while eliminating the need for polluting solvents. The technology also seems likely to inspire a variety of new materials. Small emitters are "a breakthrough," says Douglas Weiss, a research scientist at 3M who is testing AEB's devices. "It will help us make better adhesives."
As for sterilization, conventional e-beam emitters drew attention in 2001 when post offices trained them on mountains of mail thought to be contaminated with anthrax spores. AEB's cheaper, portable machines could be placed right on factory lines to sterilize everything from beverage containers to medical devices. This could lead to "safer and better systems for collecting blood, and delivering chemotherapy and other drugs," says Baxter researcher Archie Woodworth. In building-ventilation systems, they could destroy airborne anthrax or SARS. Shielded devices could also be used in bunkers or tanks, to counteract chemical weapons.
These ideas won't materialize overnight. AEB board Chairman Schultz says the commercial ramp-up should begin next year, but in fields regulated by the Food & Drug Administration, adoption may take much longer. Eventually, though, low-cost e-beam machines seem destined to proliferate -- ushering in what may someday be called the Electron Age. By William C. Symonds in Wilmington, Mass.